A wonderfully atmospheric collection of stories from one of our most captivating writers, inspired by ghost stories, traditional folk tales and country legends from England and France. These tales are richly populated by spirits and ghosts seeking revenge; by grief-stricken women and haunted men coming to terms with their destiny - all rooted deep in the elemental landscapes of Sussex, Brittany and the Languedoc.
"I hear someone coming.
It has happened before. I pause and listen but no longer hear anything. I sigh. As always, hope is snatched away before it can take root. And so then, as always, I am carried back to that first December so very long ago..." [The Mistletoe Bride]
I don't read a lot of short story collections. I don't even remember the last time that I picked one up without it being required reading for some course or other. I grabbed this particular collection last year before Christmas alongside Mystery in White by Jefferson J. Farjeon, mainly because I've read a few books by Kate Mosse and have always enjoyed them, particularly her Languedoc trilogy. To be honest, it was half price with Mystery in White and I don't even know if I was convinced when I bought it that I'd get round to reading it within the year(ish). I dug it out this winter and even then only started it because it was in the living room when I wanted something to read and my other book was somewhere else in the house. Lazy but true. I figured I could read a story or two without 'spoiling' my focus on my other book (I'm usually a monogamous reader). I read the opening story, The Mistletoe Bride, and absolutely loved it. Haunting and sad and evocative. I hurriedly finished up my other book and set upon giving these stories my full attention.
I know that it's a phrase that's bandied about with probably too much regularity but the writing in The Mistletoe Bride and Other Haunting Tales (which I'm going to just call The Mistletoe Bride) really is poetic. The stories are all pretty short (most are between ten and about 30 pages) but the writing is rich and spellbinding, making them feel longer and more indulgent. I really took my time reading them, going back over the story in a couple of cases to nose out finer details that I'd missed on the first reading but that seemed glaringly obvious when I'd read the ending.
My wariness about reading short stories is that I usually just find them less satisfying than a full novel, feeling as though the ideas aren't fleshed out enough or that I don't spend enough time with a character to really care about them. That absolutely wasn't the case with this collection. I was astounded by how much Mosse has packed each tale. Although the style of the writing is constant in a lot of ways, each story has a distinct tone and atmosphere (perhaps because this is a compilation of stories rather than a collection all written at the same time). The Revenant is set in Sussex 1955 and somehow it just feels...right and completely different to The Drowned Village, say, that is set in Brittany in 1912. I even found myself engaging with characters over a short space of time. The last story in the collection, Ghost of Christmas Past is a mere 7 pages long and I welled up as I was reading the last page.
What I particularly like about the way this collection has been put together is that each story starts with an illustration panel that perfectly set the scene and concludes with an 'Author's Notes' section, giving some background on where Mosse got the inspiration for the story or what she was trying to evoke. The titular story, The Mistletoe Bride, for example, starts with the eerie image on the right and finishes up with a note detailing how Mosse was inspired to write the poignant story by a version that she had read as a child in a book of folklore owned by her parents. Some are inspired by beautiful historic buildings that she has visited or places that intrigued her as a child. Even if you aren't at all interested in the background to the stories, the notes are pretty handy pointers of where to look if you want to read more about the featured folklore or myth.
If I had one (very minor) criticism, it would be that the ghostly thread linking the stories can make them feel a little predictable if you read too many all in one go. I found that up to three at a time was about the right dose. For the most part, these are ghost stories and chain reading just made me feel like I was playing a game of 'Spot the Ghost'. Niggle aside, these really are perfect for spreading over a few frosty nights where you don't mind the occasional chill up the spine.
Overall: A beautiful collection with stunning writing that I would recommend to fans of historical fiction or ghost stories or myths or folklore. If you don't normally read short stories, this collection is still absolutely worth giving a go. There weren't any stories that I didn't like and while I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to call myself a short story convert, these have convinced me to give collections a go when they're written by an author I trust.
Date finished: 29 December 2015
Genre: Fiction; Short Story Collection
Pictured Edition Published: in October 2014 by Orion Books